Category Archives: Non-fiction

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

book cover

The disaster goes by different names. Sometimes it’s called the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. For years, it was called the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T, mass extinction that marked the end of the Age of Reptiles and the beginning of the third, Tertiary age of life on Earth. That title was later revised according to the rules of geological arcana to the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, shorted to K-Pg. But no matter what we call it, the scars in the stone tell the same story. Suddenly, inescapably, life was thrown into a horrible conflagration that reshaped the course of evolution. A chunk of space debris that likely measured more than seven miles across slammed into the planet and kicked off the worst-case scenario for the dinosaurs and all other life on Earth. This was the closest the world has ever come to having its Restart button pressed, a threat so intense that—if not for some fortunate happenstances—it might have returned Earth to a home for single-celled blobs and not much else.

The loss of the dinosaurs was just the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was left untouched by the extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.

This is a story about two things, Earth’s Big Bang and evolution. K-Pg (pronounced Kay Pee Gee – maybe think of it as KFC with much bigger bones, where everything is overcooked?) marks the boundary between before and after Earth’s own Big Bang, manifested today by a specific layer of stone in the geologic record.

description
Riley with Jet – image from The Museum of the Earth

Ok, yes, I know that the catastrophic crash landing of the bolide, a seven-miles-across piece of galactic detritus, most likely an asteroid, that struck 66.043 million years ago, give or take, was not the biggest bad-parking-job in Earth’s history. An even bigger one hit billions of years ago. It was nearly the size of Mars, and that collision may have been what created our moon. Black makes note of this in the book. But in terms of impact, no single crash-and-boom has had a larger effect on life on planet Earth. Sure, about 3 billion years ago an object between 23 and 36 miles across dropped in on what is now South Africa. There have been others, rocks larger than K-Pg, generating even vaster craters. But what sets the Chicxulub (the Yucatan town near where the vast crater was made, pronounced Chick-sue-lube) event on the apex is its speed and approach, 45 thousand mph, entering at a 45-degree angle. (You wanna see the fastest asteroid ever to hit Earth? Ok. You wanna see it again?) It also helps that the material into which it immersed itself was particularly likely to respond by vaporizing over the entire planet. An excellent choice for maximum destruction of our mother. And of course, its impact on life, animal life having come into being about 800 million years ago, was unparalleled. In the short term, it succeeded in wiping out the large non-avian dinosaurs, your T-Rex sorts, Triceratops grazers, brontosaurian browsers, and a pretty large swath of the planetary flora as well, burning up much of the globe and inviting in a nuclear winter that added a whole other layer of devastation. Aqueous life was not spared. You seen any mososaurs lately? Even tiny organisms were expunged en masse. (Cleanup in aisle everywhere!)

description
Image from Facts Just for Kids

Here’s what the Earth looked like just before, just after, and then at increments, a week, a month, a year, and on to a million years post event. It is a common approach in pop science books to personalize the information being presented. Often this takes the form of following a particular scientist for a chapter as she or he talks about or presents the matter under consideration. In The Last Days… Black lets one particular species, usually one individual of that species per chapter, lead the way through the story, telling how it came to be present, how it was impacted by the…um…impact, and what its descendants, if there would be any, might look like. She wants to show why the things that were obliterated came to their sad ends, but also how the things that survived managed to do so.

description
Quetzcoatlus – image from Earth Archives

But as fun and enlightening as it is to track the geological and ecological carnage, like an insurance investigator, (T-Rex, sure, covered. But those ammonites? Sorry, Ms. Gaea, that one’s not specified in the contract. I am so sorry.) is only one part of what Riley Black is on about here. She wants to dispel some false ideas about how species take on what we see as environmental slots.

description
Mesodma – image from Inverse

Some folks believe that there are set roles in nature, and that the extinction of one actor (probably died as a result of saying that verboten word while performing in The Scottish Play) leads inevitably to the role being filled by another creature (understudy?) As if the demise of T-Rex, for example, meant that some other seven-ton, toothy hunter would just step in. But there is no set cast of roles in nature, each just waiting for Mr, Ms, or Thing Right to step into the job. (Rehearsals are Monday through Saturday 10a to 6p. Don’t be late), pointing out that what survived was largely a matter of luck, of what each species had evolved into by the time of the big event. If the earth is on fire, for example, a small creature has a chance to find underground shelter, whereas a brontosaurus might be able to stick it’s head into the ground, but not much else, and buh-bye bronto when the mega-killer infrared pulse generated by you-know-what sped across the planet turning the Earth into the equivalent of a gigantic deep fryer and making all the exposed creatures and flora decidedly extra-crispy.

description
Thescelosaurus – image from Wiki

Black keeps us focused on one particular location, Hell Creek, in Montana, with bits at the ends of every chapter commenting on things going on in other, far-away parts of the world, showing that this change was global. When the impact devastates the entire planet, it makes much less sense to think of the specific landing spot as ground zero. It makes more sense to see it as a planet-wide event, which would make the entire Earth, Planet Zero. It was not the first major planetary extinction, or even the second. But it was the most immediate, with vast numbers of species being exterminated within twenty-four hours.

description
Thoracosaurus – image from artstation.com

I do not have any gripes other than wishing that I had had an illustrated copy to review. I do not know what images are in the book. I had to burrow deep underground to find the pix used here. I expect it is beyond the purview of this book, but I could see a companion volume co-written by, maybe, Ed Yong, on how the microbiomes of a select group of creatures evolved over the eons. For, even as the visible bodies of critters across the planet changed over time, so did their micro-biome. What was The Inside Story (please feel free to use that title) on how the vast array of bugs that make us all up changed over the millions of years, as species adapted to a changing macrobiome.

description
Purgatorius – image from science News

I love that Riley adds bits from her own life into the discussion, telling about her childhood obsession with dinosaurs, and even telling about the extinctions of a sort in her own life. What glitters throughout the book, like bits of iridium newly uncovered at a dig, is Black’s enthusiasm. She still carries with her the glee and excitement of discovery she had as a kid when she learned about Dinosaurs for the first time. That effervescence makes this book a joy to read, as you learn more and more and more. Black is an ideal pop-science writer, both uber-qualified and experienced in her field, and possessed of a true gift for story-telling.

Also, the appendix is well worth reading for all the extra intel you will gain. Black explains, chapter by chapter, where the hard science ends and where the speculation picks up. Black incorporates into her work a wonderful sense of humor. This is always a huge plus!

description
Eoconodon – image from The New York Times

Pull up a rock in the Hell Creek amphitheater. Binoculars might come in handy. An escape vehicle (maybe a TVA time door?) of some sort would be quite useful. Get comfortable and take in the greatest show on Earth (sorry Ringling Brothers) There literally has never been anything quite like it, before or since. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs a joy to read, is one of the best books of the year.

From the time life first originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment. Think through all those eons. The changing climates, from hothouse to snowball and back again. Continents swirled and bumped and ground into each other. The great die-offs from too much oxygen, too little oxygen, volcanoes billowing out unimaginable quantities of gas and ash, seas spilling over continents and then drying up, forests growing and dying according to ecological cycles that take millennia, meteorite and asteroid strikes, mountains rising only to be ground down and pushed up anew, oceans replacing floodplains replacing deserts replacing oceans, on and on, every day, for billions of years. And still life endures.

Review posted – May 13, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs from St. Martin’s Press in return for working my ancient, nearly extinct fingers to the bone to write a review that can survive. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Profile from Museum of the Earth

Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Writer
Riley Black is a vertebrate paleontologist and science writer. She is passionate about sharing science with the public and writes about her experiences as a transgender woman in paleontology.

Riley began her science writing career as a Rutgers University undergraduate. She founded her own blog, Laelaps, and later wrote for Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and more. Riley has authored books for fossil enthusiasts of all ages, including Did You See That Dinosaur?, Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Written in Stone.
Riley loves to spend time in the field, searching the Utah landscape for signs of prehistoric life. Her fossil discoveries are in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Riley’s work in the field fuels her writing. She believes doing fieldwork is the best way to learn about paleontology.

In your own words, what is your work about?

“What really holds my work together is the idea that science is a process. Science is not just a body of facts or natural laws. What we find today will be tested against what we uncover tomorrow, and sometimes being wrong is a wonderful thing. I love the fact that the slow and scaly dinosaurs I grew up with are now brightly-colored, feathered creatures that seem a world apart from what we used to think. I believe fossils and dinosaurs provide powerful ways to discuss these ideas, how there is a natural reality we wish to understand with our primate brains. The questions, and why we’re asking them, are more fascinating to me than static answers.”

Interviews
—–IFL Science – IFLScience Interview With Riley Black: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs – video – 15:40 – with Dr. Alfredo Carpineti – There is a particularly lovely bit at the back end of the interview in which Black talks about the inclusion in the book of a very personal element
—–Fossil Friday Chats – “Sifting the Fossil Record” w/ Riley Black” – nothing to do with this book, but totally fascinating

Items of Interest from the author
—–WIRED – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Scientific American – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Riley’s site – a list of Selected Articles
—–Science Friday – articles by the author
—–Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Earth Archives – Quetzlcoatlus by Vasika Udurawane and Julio Lacerda
—–NASA – Sentry Program
—–Science Friday – Mortunaria – a filter-feeding plesiosaur
—–Biointeractive – The Day the Mesozoic Died: The Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs – on the science that produced our understanding of how the dinosaurs died out – video – 33:50
—–Wiki on the Hell Creek Formation

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction, paleontology, Science and Nature

The Lonely Stories – edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

book cover

When I invited people, I typically would offer up various prompts. I definitely made it clear from the beginning that I was interested in [pieces] that explored the ways in which alone time can be maddening and isolating and painful, but also pieces that explored the ways in which alone time can be a thrill, or a joy, or something that you crave but can’t access, which I think a lot of people also experienced during the pandemic. There was this simultaneous excess of loneliness and then absence of solitude, which is something I contemplated a lot. I feel like one thing I learned from making the book—but after it had already been printed, of course—is that our longing for solitude is also another kind of loneliness. I think it relates to my experience of the pandemic, and probably a lot of people’s experience of the pandemic. There was so much loneliness, but also the loneliness of not having solitude. Like, I have kids at home, and solitude is something that I crave. It’s like loneliness from oneself. A lack of connection to yourself. – from the CityLit interview

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone. – Orson Welles

Welles was wrong. No one is born alone. We all emerge from mothers. Even so-called “test-tube” babies gestate in and emerge from a woman. Dying alone is a lot easier to manage, particularly when the passing occurs away from medical care. But, for most of us, even in the age of COVID, there are people likely to be in attendance, even if they are not necessarily the people one might have preferred. We are social creatures from birth. That said, I do take Welles’ point that we are isolated bits of consciousness trapped inside a meat sack.

description
Natalie Eve Garrett – image from her site

We are the only true witnesses to our lives, present for every moment, every experience, every feeling. Even our closest friend(s), lover(s), shrink(s) or interrogator(s) can only know a sliver of the totality of us. So what? Is this something we require? Does this mean that we are doomed to aloneness forever? The best we can do to share that self with others is to select subsets, parts of ourselves, immediate needs, likes, reactions, interests, artistic expressions, and feelings to share, to connect our solo consciousness with the greater humanity within which we live, to demand responses, connections back, human links. What if that desirable steady-state of exchange is disrupted, or never settles in at all, for reasons internal or external? CAN ANYONE OUT THERE HEAR ME?

But we do have ways of connecting. Communication, if we can muster that. Words, gestures touch, other non-verbal modalities. We are largely telepaths, communicating our consciousness to others through the magic of sight and sound. No station-to station hard wires required. And yet, even given this miracle within us, we can, and often do, experience (suffer from) loneliness. Is loneliness a failure of communication, a reaction to external stimuli (rejection), a mechanism, like pain, that tells us that something needs attending to, or something else entirely? Maybe being lonely is just a garden variety human feeling that we all have from time to time, but that some have in dangerous abundance, in a way like cell growth and replication, which is desirable, versus out-of-control cell growth, which is cancer.

In The Lonely Stories, editor Natalie Eve Garrett has called together twenty-two writers of note for their lonely stories, memoir items, not fiction. The quote at top tells us that she was interested in looking at a few things; alone time as burden, blessing, or out of reach, longing for solitude, and feeling isolated in our lives among others. We learn more in that CityLit interview:

Even though it’s called The Lonely Stories, I definitely wanted it to encompass facets and permutations of being alone, including joy in solitude, how solitude can be replenishing and healing. So it felt like maybe sometimes I nudged things more in one direction or another and it was really important to me that the book tease out the distinction between the two, because loneliness is being defined as a lack, whereas solitude is kind of the art of feeling at home with oneself. There’s a quote for me that a friend reminded me of, that loneliness is a poverty of self and solitude is a richness of self. I feel that really nicely addresses the paradox of how being alone can be both maddening and joyful.

The tales told here cover a range. All of these stories, none longer than eighteen pages, present complexity. No simple woe is me, I’m feeling bad, will be found here. Sure, there is a bit of surviving the breakup of relationships, licking wounds, but there are universal concerns, at the very least concerns that very many of us share.

Megan Giddings writes about self-empowerment, allowing herself to function, to survive when alone, whether in a hostile social world or a physically perilous situation. Several writers tell of feeling isolated, lonely and alone in relationships. Imani Perry writes of the singular loneliness of the hospital room, and of how many of those offering help do so out of social obligation, without substantive intent or understanding. Maggie Shipstead writes of the up and down sides to experiencing the beauty of nature while alone. ( The natural beauty I saw while walking my dog—the frozen ponds and snowy beaches, the tender pale sunsets over whitecapped ocean—sometimes felt irrelevant, even discouraging, without anyone else to stand there with me and say something like, Wow, so pretty) She and others write about the joys of being alone. Sometimes coping with loneliness requires some creativity. One writer tells of concocting imaginary helpers to beat back the night. COVID figures in some stories, one in a particularly dramatic way. Of course, one can choose to be alone and find that it is not quite what one had hoped for. Lev Grossman’s story of setting out to make his fortune as a writer was hilarious, and hit very close to home. ( I can’t overstate how little I knew about myself at twenty-two or how little I’d thought about what I was doing.) Of course choosing to be alone works out just fine for Helena Fitzgerald and Melissa Febos. A question is raised; Can succeeding at aloneness spoil you for togetherness?

There are stories that will make you weep, stories that will make you laugh out loud, stories that will make you think, and stories that will make you feel. There are stories that deal with racism, alcoholism, marriage, rejection by one’s only parent, the loss of one’s parents to age and/or dementia. Three writers tell of the experience of immigration, one of multiple immigrations, and how being the outsider can stoke the engines of loneliness to a high intensity.
One of the most powerful pieces here is Yiyun Li’s story of public and private language. (Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. ) Anthony Doerr goes from a consideration of his on-line addiction to a concern about whether he actually exists at all. We think of writing as a solitary undertaking, yet some of the stories here point to writing as a way to create connections with other people.

One take on dream interpretation is that every person, every character in a dream is some manifestation of yourself. The experience of reading The Lonely Stories was a bit like that for me. In so many of the tales I could see myself in the experience of the story-tellers. I imagine that will be the case for many of you as well.

An aspect of this book that was, and probably should not have been surprising, (given the quality of the writers. Really good writing often has this effect.) was that I felt prompted to recall personal memories of loneliness, and it took some effort to turn that spigot off after only a dozen. I could have easily made this review a platform for my lonely stories, which would have been a disservice. (What if I alternate one of mine with one of theirs? went my inner gremlins. Wisdom won out. You have been spared.) It is the sort of book that would serve well as a springboard for a writing class. Everyone has felt lonely, if not all the time, then in some particular moments or parts of our lives. How about you tell of a time when you were lonely? The tales here will prompt you to think about a time, or many times when experiences, when feelings you had might fit quite nicely into a collection like this.

One thing I wished for was more of a look at definitions, where loneliness ends and being alone begins, for example. Where is the line between solitude and isolation? Where does the need to communicate run into a need for privacy? A three-dimension spectrum of solitude (not to be confused with the Fortress of Solitude) might be an interesting way to visualize aloneness, with the X-axis reflecting the degree of solitude, measured, I guess, in interactions per day in person or via comms, the Y-Axis indicating how much personal choice is involved (probably not much for a prisoner, some, for most people, more for a single person of means) and the Z-axis reflecting how a person feels about their XY intersection, with end-points at going insane and I’m good. Add color if a fourth dimension is needed. But maybe that would be in a psychology book, and not a memoir collection, so fine, whatever. There was an opportunity missed here in the selection of writers. Loneliness is a particular factor with older people, yet the oldest (that I could determine from simple Google searching) contributor is 60. Not a single fully vested Social Security recipient in the bunch, at least as far as I could tell.

Bottom line is that, while the title of this book may suggest it could be a downer, The Lonely Stories is anything but. It not only connects on an emotional level, but offers a wide range of insight into the human condition. You will laugh and cry, and maybe feel prompted to consider loneliness, or lonely times in your own experience. One thing is for certain. However you react to this book, you will not be alone in that reaction.

It’s the worst loneliness, I think, the loneliness we feel among those we feel we should be most like. Our tribe turns out not to be quite our tribe.

Review posted – April 29, 2022

Publication date – April 19, 2022

I received an ARE of The Lonely Stories from Counterpoint in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. I felt less alone while reading the book and writing about it.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Catapult – Natalie Eve Garrett Wants Us to Feel Loneliness Without Shame by Tajja Isen
—–CityLit Project – Navigating Solitude with Kristen Radtke, Natalie Eve Garrett, & Nguyen Koi Nguyen

Songs/Music
—–Roy Orbison – Only the Lonely
—–Paul Anka – I’m Just a lonely Boy
—–B.J. Thomas – I’m So lonely I Could Die
—–Charlie Haden – Lonely Town
—–Bobby Vinton – Mr. Lonely
—–Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart
—–Gilbert o’Sullivan – Alone Again
—–Carousel (the film) – Rogers & Hammerstein – Claramae Turner – You’ll Never Walk Alone
—–Les Miserables – Lea Salonga (concert performance) – On My Own

Items of Interest
—–Garbo – ”I want to be alone”
—–Roots of Loneliness – Solitude Vs. Loneliness: How To Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely by Saprina Panday
—–The
loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe – complete text
—– Frontiers in genetics – Long-Term Impact of Social Isolation and Molecular Underpinnings

1 Comment

Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

Russian Information Warfare by Bilyana Lilly

book cover

As the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-general A.V. Kartopolov remarked on April 15, 2015, “if in the past war was 80 percent combat operations, and propaganda was 20 percent, then in wars today 90 percent of activities consist of information warfare.”

Russia’s information warfare is sustained and unceasing, and, therefore, so should be our defenses.

In George Orwell’s 1984 there are three super-states, Oceania (North and South America, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), Eurasia (The Soviet Union and Europe), and Eastasia (China, Japan, Korea, northern India). While the boundaries of the superstates have not come to pass quite as Orwell imagined, one could easily see similarities in the power centers of 2021, with China atop Eastasia, Russia atop Eurasia (without Western Europe, of course, although that is becoming a bit squishy), and the USA atop Oceania. One of the elements of Orwell’s if-this-goes-on imagined dystopia was a state of perpetual war.

description
Bilyana Lily – image from Warsaw Security Forum

There is plenty of incentive for those in charge of societies to sustain a war-based economy, whether or not actual wars are fought. War has always been pretty lucrative for some business interests, and offers cover for those in power to attack dissenters as unpatriotic. It has been the case for as long as there have been nations that countries will spy on and seek to manipulate other countries for their own benefit and/or protection. The tools for doing this are diverse, including spying, diplomacy, seeking to impact elections, and the more kinetic special ops, targeted assassinations, and actual tanks-and-planes attacks. But the range of available tools has grown considerably in the last generation. The means for gaining insight into,and of manipulating, the leaders and populations of other countries have become widely available. One result of this is the realization of one of Orwell’s dark visions, albeit in a different form. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has been engaged in a ceaseless war on other nations for a long time. This warfare does not always entail the use of heavy machinery. It was not tanks that impacted the 2016 presidential election in the USA. It was new, diabolical, and effective weapons of mass communication. The internet, with its social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and countless lesser applications, has made everyone accessible, and vulnerable.

Moscow’s attempts to sow popular distrust in governance would not stop after the elections, which are only one event, but would continue after the elections when Russia may attempt to exploit socially divisive themes that could increase suspicion in democratic institutions. And drive communities further apart.

Dr. Bilyana Lily has been looking at this for some time. Born in Bulgaria, she has seen Russian actions from a perspective shared by few general readers. She earned a Masters degree from Geneva Graduate School, in International Relations and Affairs, got another MA at Oxford University, specializing in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies, and her PhD from Pardee RAND Graduate School. She has worked at the Bulgarian mission to the United Nations, led DoD research efforts out of RAND, designing analytical tools to predict cyber incidents, and worked on RAND’s election cybersecurity project. Oh, yeah, and she’s a paramedic. Probably has an invisible plane tucked away somewhere, too.

She defines her terms. Just what is considered Information Warfare? How does it fit within Russia’s military planning program? What are each of the actions intended to accomplish? What are the tools the Russians use? Lily selected seven attacks that met her criteria. She limited her study to publicly available information. So, no state secrets are in any danger of being revealed here. She took out of play some attacks that any reasonable person would deem to be at least partly Russia-based, but which lacked publicly accessible confirmations. She looks at what prompts Russia to act and considers differences in how it goes about its operations.

Several chapters of the book are about process. Here is what I am doing. Here are the things I am looking at and the things I am ignoring. Part of this is to talk about a tool she has developed for presenting the gathered information in a graphical format. It could come in handy if you need to update your boss, who is averse to reading. I know, hard to imagine. It may be of considerable use to Intelligence Community (IC) workers, but really, for the rest of us, that element of the book is skippable. It makes for slow, tough reading.

Chapter 1, however, on how Russia sees the world, and thus justifies their actions, is fascinating. It explains a lot. Russian leaders tend to the paranoid and are blind to their own crimes, and the legitimate security concerns of other nations. They see, for example, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the Afghanistan invasion by NATO, the Iraq wars and the operations in Libya as all illegitimate US led attempts at regime change. But Libya was not US-led. If anything, the USA was dragged into that. Afghanistan was the result of 9/11. The first Gulf war came about after Iraq invaded its neighbors, and the West got involved in the former Yugoslavia to prevent Serbian genocide of its neighbors. I guess everything the West does is bad and everything Russia does is ok. They do feel outgunned by the West, though, so feel justified in utilizing asymmetric tactics against their perceived enemies.

Lily uses seven case studies of Russian info warfare. Therein lies the strength of this book. Bet you recognize in the actions taken against other nations many of the actions taken by Russia against the USA. And it will make you very suspicious about the behavior of many on the far right as to exactly what relationships they have with Putin’s Russia. Who is “Q” for example? Personally, I would bet that Q is either a Russian him or herself, was paid for by Russia, or at the bare minimum, was trained and/or advised by Russia. Moscow seeks to foment discord in states it wants to impact. This does not cease when agreements are arrived at over this or that. It does not cease when guns are put down in a conflict here or there. Warfare for Russia is a permanent state. They are always trying to pit group against group, whether in the USA, France, Germany, or any other nation which has interests that clash with Russia’s.

…this book analyzes under what conditions, in what contexts, and in what combinations with other nonmilitary and military measures Russia has employed certain types of cyber operations. In particular, this book explores what conditions have been associated with the employment of various types of Russian state-sponsored cyber operations against political IT infrastructure of NATO countries and invited members.

Lily arrives at some conclusions about what the parameters are that define what Russia will do, and how far it will go. For some countries, this and then that. For other countries, only this. And it looks at what Russia hopes to accomplish with various actions. In some cases, there is hardcore spying involved, assassinations, bombings, concerted attempts to disrupt electoral systems, for example. But in others, Russia acts merely to undermine people’s confidence in electoral systems, or the viability of target governments.

If we had paid more attention to Russian military doctrine, we could have been better prepared for what happened in 2016. [in Russia’s attack on the USA election] – from the JSOU presentation

Gripes – When I was in graduate school, a professor once said that the standard format for reports to be submitted, not only in his class, but in the jobs we were training for, was 1) Say what it is you are going to say 2) Say it, and then 3) Say what it is you have just said. Lily follows this formula not only for the overall book, but within each chapter. It makes life particularly easy for those looking to speed read their way through this, but for those of us who insist on reading every word, that element was a bit of a chore. It reads as a very academic paper. No problem for folks in the field, but off-putting to the more casual reader. While it is understandable that Lilly restricts her case studies to those with publicly provable Russian connections, I was yearning for her to go a bit beyond, and incorporate looks at instances in which it is plain what is going on, despite there not being public proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Not gripes – Clearly explaining Russia’s motivation and world view. Read these case studies and you will recognize much that is going on all around us, get a sense of how Russia goes about manipulating populations. Breaking down the methods, aims, and impacts lets one talk about information warfare in specific, rather than general terms, and thereby consider actions that target individual elements for ways to defend.

It is often the case that analytical books that delve into political or social problems offer excellent insight, but fall short when it comes to offering real-world solutions. One can look at successes that targeted nations have had in beating back or preventing Russian Info attacks, and seek to apply those best practices across the board, for NATO nations in particular. Thankfully, some of Lilly’s advice seems doable.

She recommends that states should make public more of the information on cyber operations and actors directed against them, to help understand Russia’s playbook. There are benefits to be had beyond that as we saw recently, when President Biden publicly outed Russia’s plan to fake attacks on Russians and blame Ukraine, as a justification for their invasion. She also recommends transparency in political party funding sources. This really is a no-brainer, but the reality is that it is currently, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a non-starter federally in the USA where so many of those in charge of making the laws benefit directly from that very secrecy. She also recommends federal funding of cyber-awareness training for state and local campaigns. I can certainly see this meeting resistance from those legislators who might benefit from external interference in our elections. It might have a chance in individual states as a state program. There are more. It is a mixed bag, containing no silver bullet. The inherent conflicts of interest will keep the USA vulnerable. At this point we have to rely on the IC and the Department of Defense to fend off the gravest attacks. Clearly, relying on the moral concerns of companies like Facebook and Twitter (now owned by dodgy-human Elon Musk) is a sure cure for any feeling of security.

Lilly may not have all the solutions, but she has gone a very long way in identifying the problems, at least as far as Russia goes, pointing out what is likely, and under what circumstances, and letting us know where such attacks have failed and why. In the larger sense, she has made it very clear that Russian military policy contains a drive to ongoing information warfare. If you want to understand how Russia seeks to undermine Western democracies, see the techniques they use, and understand their fondness for using local allies, or puppets, Russian Information Warfare is a must read.

For Russia a particularly useful way to keep the West, or Russia’s enemies in general at bay, is to wage an information-based assault on them all, constantly. Why take casualties when you can achieve your objectives by conducting daily operations on the sly. Orwell would recognize the notion. For Russia, permanent War is Peace.

Information warfare is applied through strategic media messaging disseminated through all media channels that reach the population of the targeted country. The aggressive party uses information technologies to engage public institutions in the targeted country, such as mass media, religions institutions, NGOs, cultural institutions, and public movements receiving foreign financing. To further help the demoralization of the population and ensure chaos, the adversary targets the disillusioned population and infiltrates these groups with provocateurs. Disinformation, or deliberate falsification of events, can also be considered among the principal information warfare components.

Review posted – April 15, 2022

Publication date – September 15, 2022

I received an EPUB ARE of Russian Information Warfare from The U.S. Naval Institute in return for a fair review and agreeing not to give away any state secrets. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

An aside: I received a NetGalley EPUB ARE of this book in March, 2022. As noted above it is not due for publication until September, 2022. In the normal course of events, I would have waited to read and review it until much nearer the pub date. But given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed important to push this one to the head of the line. It may not yet be available for sale, but if you are interested, I suggest checking NetGalley for a possible early look.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Lilly’s FB and Twitter pages

From the U.S. Naval Institute:

Denounced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  Dr. Bilyana Lilly  managed projects on ransomware, cyber threat intelligence,  AI,  disinformation, and information warfare. She was a cyber expert for the RAND Corporation and has spoken at DefCon,  CyCon, the Executive Women’s Forum and the Warsaw Security Forum. Dr. Lilly is the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed publications and has been cited in the Wall Street Journal,  Foreign Policy  and ZDNet.

Interview
—–The Office of Strategic Engagement – Think JSOU – Interview with Dr. Bilyana Lilly by Lieutenant Colonel Mitch Wander – this is really more of a staged Q/A to enable Lilly to talk about her material. It is very informative, but with a particularly stiff question-reading by Wander. – This is the only one you will need.

Item of Interest from the author
—–International Committee of the Red Cross – Intercross – THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ABM TREATY: MISSILE DEFENSE AND THE U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONSHIP – 1:20:42 – Lilly is a panel member discussing James Cameron’s book The Double Game

Items of Interest
—–NY times – 3/4/2022 – I’ve Dealt With Foreign Cyberattacks. America Isn’t Ready for What’s Coming. By Glenn S. Gerstell
—–NY Times – 11/12/2018 – Operation InfeKtion – Russian disinformation: From Cold War to Kanye by Adam B. Ellick and Adam Westbrook – a three-part video series
—–The Guardian – 3/5/20922 – Ukrainians around the world aren’t just protesting –we’re fighting an information war by Jane Lytvynenko
—–Lockheed Martin – Cyber Kill Chain
—–National Technical Reports Library – 2017 – Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Cyber Deterrence -you can download the report

Although progress is being made to reduce the pervasive cyber vulnerabilities of U.S. critical infrastructure, the unfortunate reality is that, for at least the next decade, the offensive cyber capabilities of our most capable adversaries are likely to far exceed the United States’ ability to defend key critical infrastructures. The U.S. military itself has a deep and extensive dependence on information technology as well, creating a massive attack surface.

…due to our extreme dependencies on vulnerable information systems, the United States today lives in a virtual “glass house.” Hardening and increasing the resilience of the most vital critical infrastructure systems – including electricity, water, and waste water – is urgently needed to bolster deterrence by denial and by cost imposition.

—–NY Times – 3/18/22 – Why You Haven’t Heard About the Secret Cyberwar in Ukraine by Thomas Rid
—–AP – April 2, 2022 – Ukraine says potent Russian hack against power grid thwarted by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – April 13, 2022 – U.S. and Ukrainian Groups Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble By Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong

During the Cold War, the U.S. government, and the C.I.A. specifically, helped found and fund independent media organizations with the mission to penetrate the Iron Curtain with fact-based news. With the invasion of Ukraine, the organizations are once again operating with a sense of urgency as they push to get accurate information inside an authoritarian state.

—–NY Times – April 15, 2022 – How Russia Media Uses Fox News to Make Its Case by Stuart A. Thompson
—–AP – April 28, 2022 – A chilling Russian cyber aim in Ukraine: Digital dossiers by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – May 6, 2022 – The War in Ukraine, as Seen on Russian TV by Stuart A. Thompson

Leave a comment

Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

The King’s Shadow by Edmund Richardson

book cover

As he left Agra behind, Lewis had no way of knowing that he was walking into one of history’s most incredible stories. He would beg by the roadside and take tea with kings. He would travel with holy men and become the master of a hundred disguises. He would see things no westerner had ever seen before, and few have glimpsed since. And, little by little, he would transform himself from an ordinary soldier into one of the greatest archaeologists of the age. He would devote his life to a quest for Alexander the Great.

There’s an old Afghan proverb: ‘First comes one Englishman as a traveller; then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. Therefore it is better to kill the first Englishman.’ He did not know it yet, but Masson is the reason that proverb exists. He was the first Englishman.

You have probably never heard of Charles Masson. At the time of his creation in 1827, no one else had either. Nor had his creator. For six long years, Private James Lewis had endured soldiering in the military force of the East India Company (EIC) in sundry nations and city-states, in what is now India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He had hoped for a life better than what was possible in a squalid London. Dire economic times had driven large numbers of people into bankruptcy and poverty. And if they were already poor, it drove them to desperation. The government’s response was to threaten to kill those protesting because of their inability to pay their debts. There had to be a better option somewhere, anywhere. But it had turned out not to be the better life that he had hoped for.

description
Edmund Richardson– image from RNZ

Lewis suffered from the multiple curses of curiosity and intelligence. He had tired of the often corrupt, ignorant, mean-spirited officers and officials above him, and knew he would not be allowed to leave any time soon. When opportunity presented, Lewis and another disgruntled employee took off, went AWOL, strangers in a strange land. And in the sands of the Indian subcontinent, having fled across a vast no man’s land, feverish, desperate, and terrified of being apprehended by the EIC or its agents, Lewis happened across an American, Josiah Harlan, leading a small mercenary force in support of restoring the king of Afghanistan, and the adventure begins. Lewis vanished into the sands and Charles Masson was born into Lewis’s skin.

description
Josiah Harlan, The Man Who Would be King – image from Wiki

A ripping yarn, The King’s Shadow (Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City in the UK) tells of the peregrinations and travails of Lewis/Masson from the time of his desertion in 1827 to his death in 1853. It will remind you of Rudyard Kipling tales, particularly The Man who Would Be King. The real life characters on whom that story is based appear in these pages.

description
Dost Mohammad Khan. – considered a wise ruler by many, he was devilishly dishonest – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

It certainly sounds as if the world James Lewis thought he was leaving in London, a fetid swamp of human corruption, cruelty, and depravity, had followed him to the East. There is an impressive quantity of backstabbing going on. Richardson presents us with a sub-continental panorama of rogues. Con-men, narcissists, spies, the power-hungry, the deluded, the pompous, the vain, the ignorant, and the bigoted all set up tents here, and all tried to get the best of each other. There are political leaders who show us a bit of wisdom. More who know nothing of leadership except the perks. They all traipse across a land that Alexander the Great had travelled centuries before.

His quest would take him across snow-covered mountains, into hidden chambers filled with jewels, and to a lost city buried beneath the plains of Afghanistan. He would unearth priceless treasures and witness unspeakable atrocities. He would unravel a language which had been forgotten for over a thousand years. He would be blackmailed and hunted by the most powerful empire on earth. He would be imprisoned for treason and offered his own kingdom. He would change the world – and the world would destroy him.

The American mercenary with whom Lewis/Masson joined forces was a fanatic about Alexander, seeing himself as a modern day version. He taught Masson about his idol and in time Masson took the obsession on as his own, albeit without the desire for a throne that drove his American pal, reading up on histories of Alexander.

description
Shah Shujah-al-Moolk, circa 1835 – the restored king of Afghanistan who served as a British puppet) – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

You will learn a bit about Alexander, of whom stories are still told. He may not seem so great once you learn of his atrocities. The British government and the East India company tried to keep up, demonstrating a capacity for grandiosity, cruelty and inhumanity, whilst also armed with alarming volumes of incompetence and unmerited venality

description
Alexander Burnes – image from Wiki

In his travels, aka invasions, conquests, and or large-scale slaughter, Alexander established a pearl necklace of cities along his route. Some were grander than others. One, in Egypt, is still a thriving metropolis. Most vanished beneath the drifts of time, whether they had been cities, towns, villages, or mere outposts. But Charles Masson was convinced that one of Alexander’s cities could be found the general area in which he was living. The evidence on which he based this view was cultural, appearing in stories, legends, and local lore, but then more concrete evidence began to appear (coins) and appear, and appear.

Time and again, Masson is dragged away from his work, and time and again he finds his way back, his passion for unearthing the lost Alexandria becoming the driving force in his life. Surely, if his own survival were his highest priority, he would have sailed for home a long, long time before he finally did. His work was hugely successful, all the more remarkable because he was a rank amateur. Much of Lewis’s work, thousands of objects and drawings, is still on display at the British Museum. He was a gifted archaeologist, and made several world-class advances. These include discovering a long-lost Alexandrian city and using ancient coins he had discovered, that contained Greek on one side, and an unknown language on the other, to decipher that language. And significantly modify the historical view of Alexander’s era.

description
Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

The King’s Shadow is an adventure-tale biography, which focuses on Masson’s life and experiences more than on Alexander. Sure, there is enough in the book to justify the UK title, but barely. There is a lot more in here about him trying to secure the connection between his head and his shoulders, threatened by a seemingly ceaseless flood of enemies. He is a remarkably interesting character, which is what holds our interest. He has dealings with a large cast of likewise remarkably interesting characters, all of which serves to keep us interested, while passing something along about what life in this part of the world was like in the early 19th century. (Remarkably like it is today in many respects)

There are few downsides here. One is that there is a sizeable cast, so it might be a bit tough keep track of who’s who. That said, I was reading an ARE, so there might be a roster offered in the final version. I keep lists of names when I read, so managed, but that it seemed needed should prepare you for that. Second was that there were times when events went from A to D without necessarily explaining the B and C parts. For example, there is an episode in which Masson is sent along with a subordinate of Dost Mohammad Khan’s, Haji Khan, to extract taxes from a recalcitrant community. But Haji has no intention of returning, yet somehow Masson is back in Kabul in the following chapter. Really, did he escape? Did he get permission to leave? How did the move from place A to place B take place? In another, a military attack fails, yet there is no mention of why the fleeing army was not pursued. Things like that.

There are multiple LOL moments to be enjoyed. Not saying that there is any chance of passing this off as a comedy book, but Richardson’s sense of humor is very much appreciated. You may or may not find the same things amusing. His descriptions are sometimes pure delight. An itinerant Christian preacher arrives at the palace of Dost Mohammad Khan, intent on converting him. The preacher had encountered serial misfortunes in his travels and had arrived in Kabul stark naked. Richardson refers to him at one point as “the well ventilated Mr Wolff.” He also describes Masson arriving late at night at the home of Rajit Singh, the local maharaja, only to find an American in attendance, singing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Another tells of a message Masson left for future explorers at what was then an incredibly remote site. LOL time. As much as you will frown at the miseries depicted in these pages, you will smile, maybe even laugh, a fair number of times as well. I noted five LOLs in my notes. There are more than that.

Charles Masson, despite the lack of appreciation and recognition he received, made major contributions to our knowledge of the Alexandrian era. Edmund Richardson fills us in on those, while also offering a biography that reads like an Indiana Jones adventure. Richardson has a novelist’s talent for story-telling. His tale shows not only the power of singlemindedness and passion, but the dark side of far too many men, and some unfortunate forms of governance. It is both entertaining and richly informative. Bottom line is that The King’s Shadow darkens nothing while illuminating much. Jolly Good!

This is a story about following your dreams to the ends of the earth – and what happens when you get there.
Had he known what was coming, Lewis might have stayed in bed.

Review posted – April 8, 2022

Publication date – April 5, 2022

I received an ARE of The King’s Shadow from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review and a couple of those very special coins. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

From Hazlitt

Edmund Richardson writes about the strangest sides of history. The Victorian con-artist who discovered a lost city. The child prodigy turned opium addict. Several homicidal headmasters. A clutch of Spiritualists. A prophet who couldn’t get the end of the world right. And Alexander the Great. He’s currently Lecturer in Classics at Durham University. Cambridge University Press recently published his first book, Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of the Ancient World.

The King’s Shadow is Richardson’s third book.

Interviews
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria with Violet Mueller – re prior book
Tttpodcast.com
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria – audio – 48:03
—–Listen Notes – Edmund Richardson, “Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City Beneath the Mountains” (Bloomsbury, 2021) – with David Chaffetz and Nicholas Gordon – audio – 36:14
—– Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City | JLF London 2021 – Edmund Richardson with Taran N. Khan – video – 45:32 – begin about 3:00
—–ABC – Deserter, archaeologist and spy – the extraordinary adventures of Charles Masson – audio – 55:28 – with Sarah Kanowski

Item of Interest from the author
—–A pawn in the Great Game: the sad story of Charles Masson

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Charles Masson
—–Encyclopedia Iranica – Charles Masson – a nice history of his life and accomplishments
—–Josiah Harlan
—–Alexander Burnes
—–Gutenberg – The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling – full text
—–Wiki on the story – The Man Who Would Be King

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Archaeology, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, England, History, Reviews, World History

Insanity Defense by Jane Harman

book cover

In 2020, after trillions of dollars in military expenditures and multiple wars, a virus originating in a Chinese “wet market” would inflict even more economic and human damage. Overcoming the most lethal threats of the twenty-first century—at least those threats that pose the greatest risk to the health and well-being of the average citizen—will require staying the itchy trigger finger of militarized statecraft. Ultimately, achieving true security will require embracing a broader “whole of government” and “whole of nation” set of tools that reflect the full strength of America.

If Jane Harman had been on stage at the Oscars instead of Chris Rock, an out of control actor with anger issues would have failed to land the slap heard round the world. Harman would have ducked. It is clear from reading Insanity Defense that she has mastered the pugilistic art of the bob and weave. And as she does so, and despite her legislative career as a Democrat, it appears that her sweet science strategy has her tending to circle to the right.

description
Jane Harman – image from Politico

Jane Harman was a United States Representative from California’s 38th District from 1993 to 1999, and from 2001 to 2011. Security was her primary beat. She chaired the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence Subcommittee from 2007 to 2011 and was the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006. She moved on to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2011, where she remained until retiring in 2021. So, she has been there and done that for matters concerning national security for quite some time. She is a Democrat, regarded as liberal by some and a centrist by others. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave her a 95% rating, while Politico refers to her as one of the leading centrist voices in the Democratic Party on intelligence and national security.

During her time in office, she was able to work with some Republicans to revamp the organization of American spy agencies. It has been reported that she took the Wilson Center gig because it offered an opportunity to continue working on issues of interest in a bipartisan manner, something that was no longer possible as a representative, given the GOP’s scorched-earth partisanship. It is also possible that she left Congress when the Democrats’ minority status would have left her with little effective influence for at least two years.

Insanity Defense is not so much a memoir as it is a critique of the changes that have not been made to American defense policy since the end of the Cold War.

My work in the defense and intelligence space spans more than three decades, and I am vexed by the fact that policies designed to protect America are actually making us less safe. I call this “insanity defense”: doing the same thing again and again and expecting it to enhance our security.

Her look at the last thirty years includes five administrations, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Trump, pointing out how she believes they failed on foreign policy, taking on several security issues that she believes have not been adequately addressed. Trump is mentioned more than once, and not positively, but is given less attention than his predecessors. More attention to his impact on US military and intelligence policy would have been most welcome. The memoirish bits have to do with her work on committees and other positions she has held dealing with military and intelligence issues. There is nothing in here about her personal life other than events relating to her runs for office and other policy-related jobs she has held.

Harman’s basic point is valid. She makes a strong case for the need to be flexible in a variety of ways in order to address ever-changing security needs, cope with new threats, in diverse forms, and not spend every penny we have as nation on new hardware designed to win World War II. Of course that would require that Representatives and Senators with considerable defense industry constituencies step back from advocating for government spending that benefits their industries at the cost of less expensive, and potentially more effective alternate approaches. Good luck with that.

There is not a lot that will be news to you in this book. I appreciate that Harman offers some specifics on proposals that were made that could help provide needed coverage of defense needs (like drone subs that could track whatever needed tracking, running for months at a time) without requiring megabucks being spent on traditional tech, such as aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and ever more complicated and expensive fighter jets. (That means you, F-35) Some of the interactions she reports with decision-makers will only reinforce your take on them. Nothing to see here, move along.

A major point in the book is that Congress has been marginalized by the White House on matters of military action and intelligence, that power has become far too concentrated in an increasingly unitary executive. She refers to Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington.

As far as Addington was concerned, when Article II said that “the executive Power shall be vested in a President,” well, that was the end of it—all power, not some power or whatever power Congress provided or allowed. The concept of the “unitary executive,” once an obscure theory at the right fringe of legal thinking, would become the operating manual for the Bush presidency when it came to security policy. I called this a “bloodless coup”—a dramatic power shift in government that occurred almost entirely out of view at the time. Addington was always courtly and polite with me personally. But when it came to any role for Congress, his answer was always a very firm no.

Harman’s solutions for future improvement rely on somehow finding again the holy grail of bipartisanship. I believe that she was blinded to the extant political realities by her prior experience of meaningful bi-partisanship. Newt Gingrich killed it, and Mitch McConnell incinerated the body. Harman appears to be living in a bit of a time warp, in which she does not recognize that the civil bipartisanship that allowed Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to be friends has taken a hard uppercut to the chin and is lying unconscious on the mat. She certainly should be aware. It was that partisanship that some say drove her from Congress in 2011. And yet…

The greater Obama’s frustration with recalcitrant Republican majorities—first the Tea Party–dominated House, then the Mitch McConnell–led Senate—the more he would exercise executive action on a range of issues.

As if it were Obama’s frustration and not Republican intransigence that was at fault. McConnell left him no option, having publicly declared that he would oppose all bills favored by the White House. It takes two for bipartisanship, and Obama certainly tried, but Harman is blaming the victim here. (duck)

I look at what went wrong—and could go right again—through the lens of my own experience: how political moderates became first hunted and then an endangered species, caught in the crossfire between the far left and the far right. The punishment for bipartisanship became harsh and immediate. The business model shifted from working together to solve urgent problems facing the country to blaming the other side for not solving the urgent problems.

Yet more worthless both-sidism from Harman. Just look at the range of opinions in the Democratic party and then look at the Republicans. Only one party is purging moderates. (sucker punch)

This is not to say that she saves all her barbs for Dems. Harman has plenty to say about the Bush (43) administration wasting the opportunity offered by 9/11 and the sympathy the USA gained from the world from that event, pivoting to a “war on terror” that cost trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives, and accomplished not a lot. A classic case of using old tech against a new problem. Winston Churchill famously said “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war.” It appears that politicians share that malady. She strongly decries the Bush (43) administration’s embrace of secrecy and a unitary executive view of presidential power, as noted above. She rightly points out instances in which both Republican and Democratic presidents have played fast and loose with restrictions on their executive activities, particularly in matters of war and intelligence. But her tendency to pull her punches on Republicans while not offering the same consideration to Dems made the book feel off balance.

One of many mysteries about Cheney is how someone who had risen to House minority whip while a congressman from Wyoming could become so contemptuous of the institution he once helped lead.

This is not at all a mystery. Cheney was hungry for power, by any means possible. That the author fails to see or admit this speaks to either a surprising naivete or a willful ignorance. She cites her early experience of him as gracious but then cites a far cry from the obsessive almost maniacal figure he would be portrayed as, not that he was, but as he was portrayed as. (bob) She goes on to tell of asking VP Cheney directly to expand from two the list of Representatives currently kept informed about a spy project called Stellar Wind (a domestic spying program with a very shaky legal foundation) and his one word answer, “No.” She does a similar thing with Jeremy Bremer re the disastrous de-Baathification program he signed off on in Iraq, trying to lay blame on higher-ups. So what? Even if they ordered him to do it, he still did it. The man could have resigned if he opposed the order. (weave)

Do we need to change in our approaches to military thought and intelligence gathering? Sure. This presumes, of course, that the change has not already taken place, and we just don’t know about it. I am not saying that this is the case, just that it is difficult to ascertain where the truth lies in such policy areas. Do we need to pare back the unitary presidency? Absolutely, or else the nation becomes an autocracy. Do we need Congress to regain oversight, and influence on policy issued? Definitely, with the caveat that this access isn’t used solely to undermine the administration, whichever party holds the White House, but to interact with the administration to make sure the stated goals and methods are kosher.

Do we need to read Jane Harman’s Insanity Defense? There is merit in the raising of important issues of national importance and value in imparting the benefit of her experience over three decades of public service. As a refresher, this book makes some sense, offering one a chance to brush up on some meaningful legislative history, some war policy history. But this is not at all a must read. So, the final bell rings and the referee checks with the judges. The result? Split Decision.

One of the least known yet most consequential documents filed immediately after 9/11 was a memorandum of notification to Congress, commonly referred to as a “finding,” which announced that the CIA would be conducting operations that would not be acknowledged. At the time, this notification, submitted on September 17, 2001, seemed pro forma; we all took it as a given that aggressive covert activity would—indeed, must—be part of our response to the horrific attacks. Yet this same finding would cover the CIA black sites, enhanced interrogations, and targeted killings abroad for nearly two decades.

Review posted – April 1, 2022

Publication date – May 18, 2021

I received an ARE of Insanity Defense from Saint Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a few bits of classified intel Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Interviews
—–Woodrow Wilson Center – Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe with David Sanger – video – 57:31
—– Jane Harman Steps Down: A Look Back on a Decade of Leadership and Achievement by John Milewski – on her stepping down as director of the Wilson Center, and about her book – video – 30:02

Items of Interest from the author
—–Foreign Affairs – A Crisis of Confidence – How Biden Can Restore Faith in U.S. Spy Agencies
—–The Common Good – Combating Misinformation with Clint Watts and Jane Harman – video – 1:11:56

Items of Interest
—–Stellar Wind
—–Youngstown Sheet and Tube vs Sawyer re presidential power
—–Sweet Science

Leave a comment

Filed under American history, Public policy, Reviews

The Treeline by Ben Rawlence

book cover

Big changes are taking place across the vast plain stippled by spruce and striated with water that unfolds below the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The skin of the earth is melting, microbial life waking after thousands, possibly millions, of frozen years. The soil is transpiring—perspiring one could say since more moisture is being released than absorbed—and animals and plants are taking note. It is a new world, and intelligent life—the smart genes—is sniffing it out, sending out suckers, seeds and scouts, ranging north, getting ready.

The Treeline is a mind-blowing piece of work that will teach you many, many things you never suspected, while feeding your sense of awe and your sense of dread. We look to the margins for evidence of large changes in the world, tell-tale signs like rising levels along water frontages, expanding desert edges, changes in growing seasons, changes in wildlife. The treeline was the edge Ben Rawlence chose.

description
Ben Rawlence – Image from 5 x 15

He had spent years writing human rights reports and trying to get the UN and governments to address refugee issues, but when he started writing through the eyes of the refugees themselves, in several books, many more people began to listen.

Understanding that the conflict and the displacement that was going on was driven by climate change I began to look for other examples, other parts of the world where we could see this process in action, where we could see climate breakdown as history already, and we could catch a glimpse of the future that awaits the rest of us. So I began digging around and doing research and came across this very arresting image of the trees and the forest moving north towards the pole. I discovered that the forest was on the move and the trees were turning the white arctic green. They shouldn’t be on the move. That’s not supposed to happen. And this sinister fact has huge consequences for all life on earth. – from the 5×15 piece

So, what exactly is the treeline? Generically, it is the latitude above which there are no trees, roughly the Arctic Circle. Another measure is the rippled line around the globe south of which the average July temperature is ten degrees centigrade or higher. (The Arctic Squiggle?) Discovering that the Arctic treeline consisted of mostly six types of trees, he set about to look at each of these.

Scots pine in Scotland, birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland. I decided to visit each tree in its native territory, to see how the different species were faring in response to warming, and what their stories might mean for the other inhabitants of the forest, including us.

The Arctic treeline is actually fairly squishy, not so much a line as an area of transition, an ecotone, where tree presence diminishes rather than ceases. Rawlence begins with a look at where he lives, in Wales, at the yew, struggling to persist in a world that is no longer conducive to its needs. But that may be changing. Then, it is off to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, the Scandinavian interior, Siberia (larch), Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, looking at the role the boreal plays in our environment, and at the impact of global warming on these borderlands.

More than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal is truly the lung of the world. Covering one fifth of the globe, and containing one third of all the trees on earth, the boreal is the second largest biome, or living system, after the ocean. Planetary systems—cycles of water and oxygen, atmospheric circulation, the albedo effect, ocean currents and polar winds—are shaped and directed by the position of the treeline and the functioning of the forest.

One of the things that most impressed me, among the many fascinating nuggets to be found here were descriptions of the structures underlying forests.

Wherever there are mushrooms, ferns, bracken and particular kinds of woodland plants like violets there was once forest. Rings of mushrooms are usually the outline, the long-ago earthwork of a tree stump. There are between fifteen and nineteen ecto-mycorrhizal fungi (fungi growing around the roots) in a mature pine forest, and they play a role in everything from carbon and nutrient transport to lichen cover, taking sugar from the tree and providing it with minerals in exchange. Planting trees without regard for the essential symbiotic “other half” of the forest below ground may be far less effective than allowing the ground to evolve into woodland at its own pace. Oliver Rackham describes a planted oak wood in Essex that even after 750 years still does not possess the orchids, plants and mushrooms that you would expect of a natural wood.

I was reminded of what it might look like to see a city like New York or London from above and believe it to be constructed entirely of the visible structures, not appreciating that there are vast underground networks, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical lines, communication cables, transit tubes, and the like that provide the lifeblood which allows the above-ground, visible city to survive. Globally, these threads of mycorrhizal fungi make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Soil is in fact a huge, fragile tangle of tiny connected threads. Having done some digging in our back yard, I can very much appreciate that.

Another impressive feat is Rawlence’s strength in communicating how local populations interact with the trees among which they live. There are many surprises to be found here, in the range of specific benefits trees provide for one, which includes the fact that they transmit aerosols carrying chemicals that help maintain health in humans, that their leaves, berries, bark and other parts providing medicine for a wide range of illnesses, that they provide materials that oceans need to sustain life, that they drive planetary weather. Did you know that there are birch trees with things called trichomal hairs on the underside of their leaves, that capture particulates from the air, natural air filters that then allow the materials to be dropped to the ground, and washed away with the next rain? They also act like a fur coat for the leaves. The list goes on. You will be surprised by many of the uses that Arctic peoples have devised to make use of their local trees.

Will it be possible to continue such a positive relationship as the land becomes less supportive of human endeavors? The Sami people, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their reindeer herds. Snowmobiles are less than ideal when there is no snow. Substituting four-wheel All Terrain Vehicles may allow them to herd their critters, but using them damages the landscape even more. At what point will it be impossible to continue at all?

There are plenty of dark tidings. In this ring of melting ice global warming is taking place at a rate far in excess of what we experience in the more temperate zones. And then this unnerving bit; with more Co2 in the air, trees do not need to work so hard to get what they need, thus will produce less oxygen. Uh oh. As the forests of the northern hemisphere migrate north (race actually, at a rate of hundreds of feet a year in some places instead of inches per century) they are pursued on their southern end by increasingly fire-prone conditions. How much of our forest land will be consumed by a Langolier-like army of drought and flames before finding more welcoming climes? And then there is methane, pretty pearl-like bubbles when seen through clear Arctic ice, but how about this cheery nugget as permafrost becoming permaslush?

Some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane “burp” of 500–5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.

In pop science books, the author acts as a guide to the subject matter, introducing us to the places he visits, and the experts he consults. Rawlence is an engaging and informative teacher with a gift for extracting local cultural lore and area-specific histories, as well as reporting the science in accessible terms. He seems like someone you would want to hang out with. You would certainly like to sign up for any class he teaches. You will learn a lot. He is also a lyrical writer, able to offer not only straight-ahead exposition, but poetical, sometimes emotion-filled reactions to the places he visits and the experiences he has on this journey.

The brilliant sun on the pinkish cliffs and the starched blue of the sky, which has been mostly hidden all week, make the morning sing. The scent of a meadow is so heady it should be bottled. The hay has been freshly cut: huge plastic-covered bales guide the eye to a combine harvester abandoned mid-job, its windows covered in sparkling dew. Beyond, the path crosses the meadow to a wide bend that the flooding river has worked into a series of interlinked channels. The little bridges have been overwhelmed and carefully placed stepping-stones lie visible in the clear stream, half a meter underwater. Feet have cut a higher path along the edge of the valley, around drowned shrubs, riparian willow now floating midstream. The roar of the main river is all around. Gray water cradling slabs of dirty ice meanders around a cliff and then widens into a foaming skirt over even-sized white granite boulders that snag the ice and make it dance and nod until it falls apart and joins the sea-ward torrent.

Rawlence a not a fan of western capitalism, and it would be difficult to argue that the short-term profit motive is not at variance with the long-term health of the planet, but places that were at least nominally socialist did a pretty good job of devastating their environments too. Maybe the problem is a human one first, and a economic-political one second. Maybe if we lived as long as some trees (not all are long-lived) we might have a more long-term view of what matters, and not keep rushing to use everything as fast as we possibly can before someone else does. Rawlence keeps his eyes on the scientific and anthropological issues at hand. How is warming impacting these trees, the landscapes in which they exist, the societies that have lived with them for centuries, and the wider world? What can we learn from the changes that have already taken place? What can we look forward to? What can we do about it?

Despite the growth of electric car usage and renewable power generation, we have arrived at this party too late, and relatively empty-handed. Attempts to mitigate global warming cannot change the fact that there is warming to come that is already baked in. We can do nothing to change that. It will continue, even were we to cease all carbon usage tomorrow. Not that we should abandon attempts to reduce emissions. But we should know that we will not see the benefits of those actions. The mitigation work we do today may impact future generations, but the planet will continue heating up for quite some time regardless. The most we can hope for in the short term is to slow the rate somewhat.

The Treeline is a must read for anyone interested in environmental issues, global warming in particular. Who doesn’t love trees? After reading this you will love them ever more. As Rawlence points out, we are at our core tree people, having evolved thumbs to get around in an arboreal world, and having lived among or near trees for all of human history. We have evolved together, and will continue to do so. But we will have to adapt to the new Anthropocene world rather than attempting to force it back into its prior form.

In the future, when the ice is gone, there may be no such thing as a treeline at all.

Review posted – February 18, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Treeline from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a promise to plant a few saplings. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page

Lizzie Harper, a Welsh illustrator, provided many images for the book. Sadly, there were none in the e-galley I read. But you can see some on her site. Here are links to Harper’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, PInterest, and Twitter pages

Interview
—InterMultiversal – An Interview with Ben Rawlence by Simon Morden

Items of Interest from the author
—–Video trailer for the book – 1:09
—–5 x 15 – Ben Rawlence on The Treeline – video
—–The Big Issue – ‘As the planet warms, the forest is on the move’ by Rawlence

Items of Interest
—–Patagonia Films – Treeline (Full Film) | The Secret Life of Trees – video 40:16
—–Cairngorms Connect – 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the 600 square kilometer Cairngorms National Park.
—–NY Times – Feb. 4, 2022 – Seen From Space: Huge Methane Leaks by Henry Fountain

You Might Also Want To Check Out
—–Land by Simon Winchester
—–Being a Human by Charles Foster
—–The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
—–Road of Bones – not in form, obviously. But this one offers a fictional horror-story take on the great north rebelling against the outrages of humanity

Music
—–George Winston – Forest
—–Sondheim – Into the Woods

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction, Public policy, Science and Nature

System Error by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami,  Jeremy M. Weinstein,  

book cover

Technologists have no unique skill in governing, weighing competing values, or assessing evidence. Their expertise is in designing and building technology. What they bring to expert rule is actually a set of values masquerading as expertise—values that emerge from the marriage of the optimization mindset and the profit motive.

Like a famine, the effects of technology on society are a man-made disaster: we create the technologies, we set the rules, and what happens is ultimately the result of our collective choices.

Yeah, but what if the choices are not being made collectively?

What’s the bottom line on the bottom line? The digital revolution has made many things in our lives better, but changes have come at considerable cost. There have been plenty of winners from the digitization of content, the spread of the internet, the growth of wireless communication, and the growth of AI. But there have been battlefields full of casualties as well. Unlike actual battlefields, like those at Gettysburg, many of the casualties in the battles of the digital revolution did not enlist, and did not have a chance to vote for or against those waging the war, a war that has been going on for decades. But we, citizens, do not get a say in how that war is waged, what goals are targeted, or how the spoils or the costs of that war are distributed.

description
Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein – image from Stanford University

In 2018, the authors of System Error, all professors at Stanford, developed a considerable course on Technology, Policy, and Ethics. Many Technical and Engineering programs require that Ethics be taught in order to gain accreditation. But usually those are stand-alone classes, taught by non-techies. Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein wanted something more meaningful, more a part of the education of budding computer scientists than a ticking-off-the-box required course. They wanted the teaching of the ethics of programming to become a full part of their students’ experience at Stanford. That was the source for what became this book.

They look at the unintended consequences of technological innovation, focusing on the notions of optimization and agency. It is almost a religion in Silicon Valley, the worship of optimization uber alles. Faster, cleaner, more efficient, cheaper, lighter. But what is it that is being optimized? To what purpose? At what cost, to whom? Decided on by whom?

…there are times when inefficiency is preferable: putting speed bumps or speed limits onto roads near schools in order to protect children; encouraging juries to take ample time to deliberate before rendering a verdict; having the media hold off on calling an election until all the polls have closed…Everything depends on the goal or end result. The real worry is that giving priority to optimization can lead to focusing more on the methods than on the goals in question.

Often blind allegiance to the golden calf of optimization yields predictable results. One genius decided to optimize eating, so that people could spend more time at work, I guess. He came up with a product that delivered a range of needed nutrients, in a quickly digestible form, and expected to conquer the world. This laser focus managed to ignore vast swaths of human experience. Eating is not just about consuming needed nutrients. There are social aspects to eating that somehow escaped the guy’s notice. We do not all prefer to consume product at our desks, alone. Also, that eating should be pleasurable. This clueless individual used soy beans and lentils as the core ingredients of his concoction. You can guess what he named it. Needless to say, it was not exactly a marketing triumph, given the cultural associations with the name. And yes, they knew, and did it anyway.

There are many less entertaining examples to be found in the world. How about a social media giant programming its app to encourage the spread of the most controversial opinions, regardless of their basis in fact? The outcome is actual physical damage in the world, people dead as a result, democracy itself in jeopardy. And yet, there is no meaningful requirement that programmers adhere to a code of ethics. Optimization, in corporate America, is on profits. Everything else is secondary, and if there are negative results in the world as a result of this singular focus, not their problem.

How about optimization that relies on faulty (and self-serving) definitions. Do the things we measure actually measure the information we want? For example, there were some who measured happiness with their product by counting the number of minutes users spent on it. Was that really happiness being measured, or maybe addictiveness?

Algorithms are notorious for picking up the biases of their designers. In an example of a business using testing smartly, a major company sought to develop an algorithm it could use to evaluate employment candidates. They gave it a pretty good shot, too, making revision after revision. But no matter how they massaged the model the results were still hugely sexist. Thankfully they scrapped it and returned to a less automated system. One wonders, though, how many algorithmic projects were implemented when those in charge opted to ignore the down-side results.

So, what is to be done? There are a few layers here. Certainly, a professional code of ethics is called for. Other professions have them and have not collapsed into non-existence, doctors, lawyers, engineers, for example. Why not programmers? At present there is not a single, recognized organization, like the AMA, that could gain universal accedence to such a requirement. Organizations that accredit university computer science programs could demand more robust inclusion of ethical course material across course-work.

But the only real way we as a society have to hold companies accountable for the harm already inflicted, and the potential harm new products might cause, is via regulation. As individuals, we have virtually no power to influence major corporations. It is only when we join our voices together through democratic processes that there is any hope of reining in the worst excesses of the tech world, or working with technology companies to come to workable solutions to real-world problems. It is one thing for Facebook to set up a panel to review the ethics of this or that element of its offerings. But if the CEO can simply ignore the group’s findings, such panels are meaningless. I think we have all seen how effective review boards controlled by police departments have been. Self-regulation rarely works.

There need not be an oppositional relationship between tech corporations and government, despite the howling by CEOs that they will melt into puddles should the wet of regulation ever touch their precious selves. What a world: what a world! A model the authors cite is transportation. There needs to be some entity responsible for roads, for standardizing them, taking care of them, seeing that rules of the road are established and enforced. It is the role of government to make sure the space is safe for everyone. As our annual death rate on the roads attests, one can only aim for perfection without ever really expecting to achieve it. But, overall, it is a system in which the government has seen to the creation and maintenance of a relatively safe communal space. We should not leave to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter decisions about how much human and civic roadkill is acceptable on the Information Highway.

The authors offer some suggestions about what might be done. One I liked was the resurrection of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. We do not expect our elected representatives to be techies. But we should not put them into a position of having to rely on lobbyists for technical expertise on subjects under legislative consideration. The OTA provided that objective expertise for many years before Republicans killed it. This is doable and desirable. Another interesting notion:

“Right now, the human worker who does, say $50,000 worth of work in. factory, that income is taxed and you get an income tax, social security tax, all those things.
It a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Some of their advice, while not necessarily wrong, seems either bromitic or unlikely to have any chance of happening. This is a typical thing for books on social policy.

…democracies, which welcome a clash of competing interests and permit the revisiting and revising of questions of policy, will respond by updating rules when it is obvious that current conditions produce harm…

Have the authors ever actually visited America outside the walls of Stanford? In America, those being harmed are blamed for the damage, not the evil-doers who are actually foisting it on them.

What System Error will give you is a pretty good scan of the issues pertaining to tech vs the rest of us, and how to think about them. It offers a look at some of the ways in which the problems identified here might be addressed. Some entail government regulation. Many do not. You can find some guidance as to what questions to ask when algorithmic systems are being proposed, challenged, or implemented. And you can also get some historical context re how the major tech changes of the past impacted the wider society, and how they were wrangled.

The book does an excellent job of pointing out many of the ethical problems with the impact of high tech, on our individual agency and on our democracy. It correctly points out that decisions with global import are currently in the hands of CEOs of large corporations, and are not subject to limitation by democratic nations. Consider the single issue of allowing lies to be spread across social media, whether by enemies foreign or domestic, dark-minded individuals, profit-seekers, or lunatics. That needs to change. If reasonable limitations can be devised and implemented, then there may be hope for a brighter day ahead, else all may be lost, and our nation will descend into a Babel of screaming hatreds and kinetic carnage.

For Facebook, with more than 2.8 billion active users, Mark Zuckerberg is the effective governor of the informational environment of a population nearly double the size of China, the largest country in the world.

Review posted – January 28, 2022

Publication date – September 21,2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Rob Reich’s (pronounced Reesh) Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Reich is a professor of Political science at Stanford, and co-director of Stanford’s McCoy Center for Ethics, and associate director of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial intelligence

Links to Mehran Sahami’s Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Sahami is a Stanford professor in the School of Engineering and professor and associate Chair for Education in the Computer Science Department. Prior to Stanford he was a senior research scientist at Google. He conducts research in computer science education, AI and ethics.

Jeremy M. Weinstein’s Stanford profile

JEREMY M. WEINSTEIN went to Washington with President Obama in 2009. A key staffer in the White House, he foresaw how new technologies might remake the relationship between governments and citizens, and launched Obama’s Open Government Partnership. When Samantha Power was appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations, she brought Jeremy to New York, first as her chief of staff and then as her deputy. He returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

Interviews
—–Computer History Museum – CHM Live | System Error: Rebooting Our Tech Future – with Marietje Schaake – 1:30:22
This is outstanding, in depth
—–Politics and Prose – Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami & Jeremy Weinstein SYSTEM ERROR with Julián Castro with Julian Castro and Bradley Graham – video – 1:02:51

Items of Interest
—–Washington Post – Former Google scientist says the computers that run our lives exploit us — and he has a way to stop them
—–The Nation – Fixing Tech’s Ethics Problem Starts in the Classroom By Stephanie Wykstra
—–NY Times – Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It
—–Brookings Institution – It Is Time to Restore the US Office of Technology Assessment by Darrell M. West

Makes Me Think Of
—–Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks
—–Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
—–Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

Leave a comment

Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Non-fiction, programming, Public policy

Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

book cover

Milley believed January 6 was a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy, designed to overthrow the government to prevent the constitutional certification of a legitimate election won by Joe Biden.

Milley summarized and scribbled. “Big Threat: domestic terrorism.”
Some were the new Brown Shirts, a U.S. version, Milley concluded, of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party that supported Hitler. It was a planned revolution. Steve Bannon’s vision coming to life. Bring it all down, blow it up, burn it, and emerge with power.

The title, Peril, is drawn from President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, in which he says “We have much to do in this winter of peril…” It is the epigraph for the book. Winter is not coming. It is bloody well here, and has been here a lot longer than most folks realize. Woodward and his much younger partner, Bob Costa, national political reporter for the Washington Post, look over some of what we have endured, consider the peril we face today, and give us plenty to think about concerning what lies ahead. Biden’s speech addresses not only the threat to our democracy, but the threat to our safety from COVID variants, the cry for racial justice, and the threat to our planet from global warming. This book focuses on the threat to American democracy.

description
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa – image from CNN

It rolls along on two parallel tracks. One is Trump’s attempt to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election. The other is Joe Biden’s determination to preserve the soul of our nation, focusing on his campaign, and the first few months of his administration. The chapters alternate, more or less between Trump and Biden.

“Was that from this book?” One peril to be faced in reading this book is that of fixing what one read, when, where, and by whom, given the firehose flood of books on the Trump era. I addressed that in my review of I Alone Can Fix It. If this is of interest you can click here for a look.

description
Trump’s mob assaults the Capitol on January 6, 2021 – image from Business Insider

January 6, 2021 is a date which will live in infamy. That was the day on which American democracy was nearly bombed into surrender by a sneak attack on the citadel of our national values. That was the day on which a failed Trump-led coup could easily have made moot the election he had just lost, and rendered American elections, certainly presidential elections, meaningless. It was the coming out party for an American brand of fascism that has long been an undercurrent, and sometimes much more, in our political life as a nation, a dark but always-present element in our population that Trump had recruited and encouraged for years, even before he ran for office.

It is clear that, to the extent that we will ever know all the details of the coup plot, it is likely to come from the Congressional January 6 Committee’s final report, in combination with unredacted testimony given to that committee, testimony given at what we hope will be very public trials of those in charge of the effort, and intrepid reporters. The authors count among that final group. While offering far from a complete portrait of the plot, they have given us an insider’s look at what people in the administration and the government beyond that faced on 1/6 (which I personally think should be called Desecration Day.) And what they had to deal with in the months leading up to it.

description
Milley speaking with Trump – image from DNYUZ

It was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley whose intercession with his Chinese counterpart talked the Chinese military down from a concern that Trump might launch an attack on China in order to remain in office, not once but twice. As the Chinese were again concerned what our imbalanced president might do after his coup attempt failed. There was also concern that Trump would attack Iran in an attempt to secure his own position. I doubt Israel would have appreciated the incomings such an action would have surely generated. He also floated the idea of evacuating troops from Afghanistan in January, 2021, with minimal planning. Thankfully he was dissuaded from that impulse as well.

Milley is the official most in the limelight here. He was appointed to that post by Donald Trump. In Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s book I Alone Can Fix It, Milley told them of his concerns about the dangers of a right-wing coup. There is plenty more of that in this book as well. We hear a lot from Trump-whisperer Lindsey Graham about his conversations with Trump, who appears to have actually convinced himself of the truth of his own lies. He is a fine representative of those who, while remaining loyal to Trump, try to counsel him to sane courses of action.

description
Donald Trump pretends to check his watch as Senator Lindsey Graham speaks at the White – image and text from The Guardian

We get a look at the conversations among the cabinet level officials, unwilling to allow him to use the US military as his private army. We learn what analyses they shared about the dangers facing the nation, what agreements they came to among themselves, what steps they took, and what mistakes they made. We get a look at how these and other level-headed adults in the administration did whatever they could to keep Trump from causing irreparable harm to the nation with his impulsive-driven, self-serving, poorly-informed decision-making. Part of all this included making certain that proper chains of command would be followed should Trump decide to start a war as a Wag the Dog self-preservation move, or command the military to take actions that were illegal.

Days after the election, Trump fired Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, in large part for his public opposition to the use of the military to suppress BLM protests. It was certainly clear to those tracking Trump’s actions that Trump wanted the US military to be his personal security force, and Esper was an impediment. In fact, it was appropriate for the military to be brought to bear to battle an insurrection, and the delays in the military’s response can be traced to the Department of Defense, by then Esper-free, sitting on its hands for far too long.

description
Defense Secretary Mark Esper – fired after the election – image from Reuters via BBC

One item that becomes clear from the telling here is that Mike Pence did his best to find a way to Yes for Trump, but was unable. It is also clear that Trump pushed Pence a step too far when he issued a press release claiming that the Vice President agreed with Trump’s lie that the VP had the legal right to refuse to accept the electoral votes of any state. It was the only thing, apparently, in four years in office, that generated a spine in the relentlessly invertebrate Pence, driving him into bunker mode. It is unfortunate that Pence will likely be remembered more for this single act than for his years of pathetic subservience to and enabling of an American Mussolini. It is chilling to consider that had there been alternate slates of electors ready to bring to bear, Pence might have actually done the deed. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi called him repeatedly after the insurrection, wanting him to invoke the 25th amendment. He refused to take their calls, calling a quick halt to his vertebrate moment.

description
Mike Pence flees the mob on 1/6 – image from The Guardian

The book will (it certainly should) make your blood boil. The Founders put together a guiding document and a set of rules that presumed they would be carried out by honorable officials. They did not count on the possibility of a sociopath being elected president. Someone with not only no respect, but outright contempt, for the rule of law. He really claimed, and maybe even believed in his diseased mind, like Louis XIV, who famously said “L’etat est moi,” that he, personally, was the state.

Bottom line is that when you see Woodward and Costa being interviewed about this book, or talking about the events they covered, their hair is on fire. They understand what it was that happened, namely that not only did the nation narrowly avoid a fascist coup that would have made the USA a dictatorship, but that the party of the guy who ordered it is all lined up and ready to goose-step their way to another try. We may have survived Trump’s 2021 coup attempt, but it is clear that he will try again, and there are far too many who are more than willing to go along, whether actively or passively.

description
Trump with Steve Bannon – image from CNN

Now, as for the other part of this book. It should come as a salve for the angst generated by the reporting on Trump. They follow Biden’s decision to run, following the Charlottesville “good people on both sides” outrage, convinced that the very soul of the nation was imperiled, and that he could offer a way out of this very dark cloud, more so than other extant or potential candidates. We get to see a very human Biden, sincere, knowledgeable, willing to listen to well-informed and well-meant advice, willing to make needed adjustments, willing to talk to anyone, anywhere, and unwilling to be baited by Trumpian taunts and lies. We are let in to some of the family troubles the Bidens have endured, that they continue to endure. Biden is shown as the anti-Trump, an incredibly decent person, gifted at making personal contact with people, caring about people, remembering them, willing to spend unheard of amounts of time with people who could offer him nothing but their shared pain. It shows candidate Biden behaving in a presidential manner when the actual president would not. It is a warm portrait of a man the authors have certainly seen enough of to know. They also show him getting tough in legislative negotiations, and showing his exasperation when sanity, and decency, seem insufficient to accomplish a goal. The book continues into March 2021, so shows Biden as president as well as merely a candidate.

But, of course, being Washington reporters, they feel it necessary to take a swing or two. In one instance they report on Biden snapping at a reporter who was being particularly dickish as if there was something wrong with that. That Biden later apologized was the real fault here. The reporter merited being smacked down. Their portrayal was that this was a kind of gaffe. Take a moment to roll your eyes here. The Beltway media have particular story lines that they adhere to, regardless of the facts. Reporting Biden as particularly gaffe-ridden is among them. He is no more so than most other people. We all misstate things at times. But they seem eager, drooling even for a chance to catch another one and reinforce the image. Their treatment of Biden’s entirely appropriate reaction to a hostile reporter is of a cloth with that mindlessness.

description
Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden takes a picture with the Downs family after campaigning in Rehoboth Beach. – image and text from the Cape Gazette

Gripes (in addition to the one above)
As happens far too often in books of this sort, namely political history books put together largely through personal interviews, the authors sometimes slip into stenography mode. They report, presumably straight-faced, about Senate Majority, now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trotting out his spin about tax cuts for the rich being “tax reform” and crediting Trump for an economy that had been humming along quite nicely when he took office. I call BS. They continue in this mode about McConnell working with cabinet members trying to push Trump to some semblance of normal. Take nothing McConnell reports himself saying at face value. Second-party confirmation is always needed there. Ditto for Lindsey Graham.

Former Republican and Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt issued a statement about Graham…saying that many people have tried to understand Graham over the years. He encouraged people not to look at it “through the prism of the manifest inconsistencies that exist between things he used to believe and what he’s doing now.”
Instead, Schmidt said, “The way to understand him is to look at what’s consistent. And essentially what he is in American politics is what, in the aquatic world, would be a pilot fish: a smaller fish that hovers around a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus. That’s Lindsey. And when he swam around the McCain shark, broadly viewed as a virtuous and good shark, Lindsey took on the patina of virtue. But wherever the apex shark is, you find the Lindsey fish hovering about, and Trump is the newest shark in the sea. Lindsey has a real draw to power — but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.”
– from Salon article

Graham is quoted at length here, and it is all self-serving. Douse that with salt before consuming.

Gripes, notwithstanding, Peril is an important book, another in a large library of reporting on the workings of the Trump administration, and particularly at how close Trump’s attempted coup came to succeeding.

There are many lessons to be learned here. One is that the January 6th Committee should interview, whether via subpoena or not, all the players involved in orchestrating the insurrection, including Trump, and that they need to complete their report and make all necessary criminal referrals to the Department of Justice before Republicans have a chance to regain control of the House and shut them down. We learn that the norms and rules of American government are fatally flawed, allowing the dark-hearted to game the system for their political and personal advantage. We learn that even in dark times there are officials willing to put their careers, and even their lives on the line to stand up for the ideals and institutions, that Americans claim to admire and respect. We learn that there need to be fixes made to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make sure that each state’s electors truthfully represent the decision of the voters.

description
Attorney John Eastman, left, speaks next to Rudy Giuliani at Donald Trump’s rally on 6 January – Image and text from Reuters, by way of The Guardian – photo by Jim, Bourg

The book’s epigraph cut short Biden’s inaugural statement. The full sentence reads We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Despite the subsequent COVID variants that have killed or damaged so many in our nation, and the world, a major relief bill made it through a very marginally Democratic Congress. Other measures are needed, but hope that more can be done remains alive, despite Joe Manchin. There are hopeful signs in many parts of the nation that democracy is on the rise.

But the forces of darkness are indeed on the march, with shameless efforts, far too often successful, to suppress the right to vote of people unlikely to vote Republican, and to seize partisan control of state vote-counting mechanisms to make sure that if that suppression is not enough there is a second way to cheat their way to victory. What we are looking at in America is the rise of a fascist party that wears the name-tag Republican. Do not be fooled. These are the same sorts of people the Allies fought in World War II. The same sorts of people who seized control of Turkey in 2016, and who have gained power in far too many nations. The same sorts of people who admire corrupt autocrats like Vladimir Putin. Woodward and Costa have offered us a look at how such people operate when they find themselves in a position of power. No law is too sacred. No act too extreme. Thankfully, they were not as organized as they needed to be on 1/6 to succeed in their goals and they do not yet have enough power to implement their dark desires. But have no doubt that should they achieve their electoral goals, fairly or not, they will usher in a new Dark Age in America.

We as a nation are in mortal danger. We need to continue reading, learning about what has happened, and what has been hidden, so that we can be better prepared for the challenges that await. Woodward and Costa’s book helps us see what has gone on, and helps us prepare, offering one Peril we should all welcome.

Five years ago, on March 31, 2016, when Trump was on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination, we worked together for the first time and interviewed Trump at his then unfinished Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
That day, we recognized he was an extraordinary political force, in many ways right out of the American playbook. An outsider. Anti-establishment. A businessman. A builder. Bombastic. Confident. A fast-talking scrapper.
But we also saw darkness. He could be petty. Cruel. Bored by American history and dismissive of governing traditions that had long guided elected leaders. Tantalized by the prospect of power. Eager to use fear to get his way.
“Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Trump told us.
“I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”
Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?
Peril remains.

This review has been cross-posted, well, most of it, on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Woodward’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Links to the Robert Costa’s Instagram and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Washington Post – Transcript: “Peril” with Co-Authors Bob Woodward & Robert Costa by Karen Tumulty – transcript of a Washington Live interview
—–The Guardian – ‘American democracy will continue to be tested’: Peril author Robert Costa on Trump, the big lie and 2024 by David Smith
—–NPR – Trump’s strategy to overturn the 2020 election didn’t work. Next time it might by Terry Gross

My reviews of other books by Bob Woodward
—–2020 – Rage
—–2018 – Fear
—–2010 – Obamas’s Wars
—–2008 – The War Within

Some other related books to check out
—–I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker
—–Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump
—–Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine K. Albright
—–Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
—–Unbelievable by Katy Tur

1 Comment

Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, True crime

Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin

book cover

Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.

Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.

Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.

description
Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin

But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.

There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.

I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.

For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.

Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.

description
7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago

The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.

Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.

description
Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds

There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.

description
Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library

Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.

description
Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India

Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.

This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)

Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.

She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.

So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.

I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.

Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.

I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.

White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.

I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.

Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.

Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.

It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.

Review posted – December 24, 2021

Publication date – December 7, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Subin’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB
—–The Guardian – How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall – an edited excerpt

Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society
—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, World History

The Social Leap by William von Hippel

book cover

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

description
William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature